Islamic Militancy

Philippine school siege ends with dozens of hostages freed by fleeing militants

The gunmen reportedly rigged some areas of the school with home-made bombs, according to some of the freed captives

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 June, 2017, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 June, 2017, 8:33am

Militants who used civilians as human shields while occupying a Philippine school fled last night, and all 31 hostages were safe, a military spokesperson said.

“It’s all resolved, all the hostages have been accounted for, no one was hurt,” national military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said.

Earlier, gunmen from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters manoeuvred to attack troop and militiamen outposts but were ­repelled by government forces, prompting them to seize villagers as human shields in Malagakit village in North ­Cotabato province, military officials said.

At least four rebels were killed and two government militiamen were wounded in the fighting, which caused nearly 1,000 villagers in Malagakit and two nearby villages to flee to safety, the officials said.

The retreating gunmen, ­estimated by the military and ­police to number from 200 to 300, occupied a school building, where they ­sporadically traded shots with troops up to nightfall, said local army spokesman Captain Arvin Encinas.

During a lull in the gunbattle, 31 people, including a dozen children, were either allowed to dash to freedom or escaped from the school. Six other villagers remained in rebel custody, according to army brigade spokesman Captain Nap Alcarioto, before being freed also.

“They’re the ones who ran and got trapped in the gunbattle and then were taken,” Alcarioto said, adding that they were being held in two classrooms.

More than 20 other residents who were trapped in their houses were taken to safety by troops, ­officials said.

Many of the gunmen managed to escape from the school after they freed the hostages, ­Encinas said. They reportedly rigged some areas of the school with home-made bombs, Alcarioto said, citing statements by some of the freed captives.

The rebels may have taken ­advantage of a massive military offensive against militants aligned with Islamic State who have laid siege to the southern city of Marawi, and plotted to attack military targets elsewhere, military spokesman Padilla said at a news conference.

“They were taking advantage of the situation that we have a very lightly defended outpost and that they think our forces are elsewhere in the province,” Padilla said. “But that is not the case, our forces are spread all over. We may be facing many fronts ... but we’ve properly assigned our forces.”

Rebel spokesman Abu Misry Mamah acknowledged in a radio interview that his group staged the attack, but said they only took hold of some villagers to protect them during the gunbattle.

The rebels broke off from the largest Muslim rebel group several years ago to protest peace talks with the government.

Weakened by battle setbacks, some commanders have aligned themselves with Islamic State in the hope of securing funding from the Middle East-based group, ­according to the military.

Last month, about 500 militants seized Marawi, a mosque-dotted centre of the Islamic faith in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

The attack followed an army and police raid on a hideout that failed to capture a top militant suspect.

Philippine troops, backed by airstrikes, have been fighting street battles to wrest back control of four areas in the city’s business district.

At least 258 militants, 65 soldiers and police and 26 civilians have been killed and more than 300,000 villagers have fled from Marawi and outlying towns.

The US military in recent weeks deployed a P3 Orion aircraft to provide surveillance for troops battling more than 100 gunmen holding an unspecified number of hostages in Marawi.

President Rodrigo Duterte, despite having an antagonistic stance toward Washington, has acknowledged the US assistance is helping save lives.

The attack has sparked fears that Islamic State, while losing territory in Syria and Iraq, may now be gaining a foothold in Southeast Asia.

Duterte, who ignited health fears last week after he was forced to taker a near week-long rest, declared martial law in the entire Mindanao region to deal with the Marawi crisis.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse